Smells Like a Chlorine Conspiracy
Issue #39, September 1998
You know you're paranoid when you spot a conspiracy while walking down Aisle 9 in a Safeway supermarket. As I work my way down my shopping list, weaving methodically up and down each and every aisle, I notice patterns and trends within our material culture that only occur to me when surrounded by the sheer mass of consumer goods found in a typical supermarket.
This weekly ritual of grocery shopping is usually a very relaxing exercise. It's an aerobic, low-impact workout that involves plenty of walking and moderate amounts of lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling "weights." Given a smooth-riding grocery cart and enough specials on sale, grocery shopping can almost be a zen-like experience. But from time to time, a realization hits me like a bag of kitty litter that jolts me back to my "normal" state of mind: paranoid and delusional. Like the time I realized that there's a conspiracy in the fabric softener business. Think about it. Before they started selling the ultra-concentrated liquids, were they watering down the fabric softener for the public's consumption? Or the related "dispenser ball scam." Only as a result of a secret agreement between the fabric softener industry and washing machine manufacturers would such an unnecessary device be invented and marketed for mass consumption.
During my last grocery-shopping trip it was the shelves of household cleansers, bath and beauty aids, and cooking tools on Aisle 9 that really ticked me off. Like millions of other Americans, I jumped on the "Brita water is better water" bandwagon a few years ago. Feeding on public paranoia over the presence of chlorine and lead in our tap water, companies like Brita began a media blitz advertising the virtues of clean drinking water. Even if we hadn't previously "tasted" chlorine in our tap water, commercials now instructed us how to test for its presence. One ad demonstrated an experiment. Take two cups of hot water (one cup regular tap water and another cup of Brita water), place a tea bag into each, and allow to steep. Now look for a color difference between the two cups. If the tea made from tap water is lighter in hue, you have chlorine in your tap water! And the solution? Buy Brita! "Because Brita water is better water."
Brita Water Filtration units -- glorified plastic water pitchers with "easy-to-replace" filter cartridges -- started to pop up everywhere. From supermarkets to pharmacies to department stores, Brita merchandise was on display and for sale all across the country. I saw people carrying Brita along as carry-on luggage on their way back to Asia. I had family members give Brita as Christmas gifts. Pretty soon after the product's debut, a Brita pitcher could be found on just about every refrigerator shelf or countertop in America. We were hooked on Brita water. And only then did we realize the consequences of our addiction. We'd bought into a lifetime of dependency on Brita replacement filters. The Brita system even comes with a built-in calendar system that reminds us when we need to get our next "dose" of clean water. The clear, see-through plastic tells us when we're running low, and we have to wait anxiously while the tap water drips slowly through the filter. There's even a sticker that reminds us when we need to replace the filter, the first of which comes free with purchase of the Brita water pitcher. Little do we realize just how much the replacement filters cost, until we're too far into our addiction to Brita water to care.
As I grudgingly placed a box of the replacement filters for my Brita Water Filtration System -- at a pricy $9.95 -- into my shopping cart on this particular shopping trip, I noticed the bottle of Clorox Bleach that it was resting next to. A huge gallon bottle at the bargain-basement price of $1.29. This is what pissed me off. If we were to follow the manufacturer's directions, one gallon of bleach could treat a whole swimming pool of tap water many times over-all for $1.29 (not including the cost of municipal water delivery, of course, but that's another conspiracy all-together!). But how much would it cost to run all that bleach water through a pitcher of Brita Water Filter? Once again, if we were to follow the manufacturerUs recommendations, we'd be buying one filter per 40 gallons, which would cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in replacement filters! If that doesn't sound like a conspiracy to you, wait until you learn who manufactures these two products
You don't hear them announcing this on their television commercials, but Brita is a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Clorox Company. Now I may not be an expert in chemistry, but it seems to me that it would take a great deal more effort to produce a noxious chemical such as chlorine bleach compared to packaging activated charcoal in a little plastic cylinder. After all, a huge ten pound bag of Kingsford Charcoal (also a subsidiary of The Clorox Company, by the way) costs a mere $4.95.
Maybe I'm just paranoid. Perhaps there is a perfectly good explanation for why "activating" charcoal costs so much more than "synthesizing" bleach. But now I understand why Brita doesn't go out of its way to publicize its affiliation with Clorox. Maybe it would sound too much like a conspiracy? A chlorine conspiracy, to be exact. First they sell us the bleach (real cheap) that goes into the water system. Then they help us identify that there's chlorine in our water supply (real scientific). Then they tells us there's a way to get rid of the chlorine that they help put into the water in the first place (real smart). Finally they have us pay each and every time we replace that filter (real expensive). This exploitation of health-conscious Americans who have bought into the Brita system is a perfect example of how corporations increase their profits at our expense.
It's the capitalist system in microcosm. Brita isn't just better water. Brita is a better way for Clorox to do business. Clorox manufactures the problem. Clorox makes us pay to produce the problem. Clorox help us identify the problem. Clorox tells us that there's a solution. Clorox manufactures the solution. Clorox does everything possible to make use become addicted to this solution. And Clorox makes us pay over and over again for this solution to a problem for which it is also responsible.
These are the kinds of realizations that spoil my workout in the supermarket. "Clean-up on Aisle 9! Smells like a chlorine conspiracy!"
Shih Chang is a graduate student in the English Department at Berkeley, but he's actually studying to become a '50s-style homemaker, majoring in high-cholesterol baking techniques. His studies are supervised by Martha Stewart via televised courses, magazine subscriptions, and online tutorials.